Paul Greenberg

A bright new president announces he's going to have the most ethical administration in American history and, even before the new has worn off, has to accept the resignations of one after another of his top appointees when their ethical lapses come to harsh light.

Sound familiar?

It should. The calendar says 2009, the new president is Barack Obama, but it could be the false political spring of 1993, when Bill Clinton seemed almost as busy undoing his appointments as he'd been making them only days before.

Something else hasn't changed much, either: The distinguished former appointees almost uniformly explain that they're stepping down not because they've shown rotten judgment and/or complete insensitivity to the simplest ethical requirements, but because paying attention to such matters would be too much of a "distraction" from the great service they have and could still render an ungrateful public. (There is no limit to the egotism of political hacks when caught in a compromising position; it's as if they actually believed all the flowery introductions they've got at civic banquets over the years.)

Just read, if you can stand it, Tom Daschle's posturing, self-serving, glossing-over and generally beside-the-point statement on his decision to withdraw his nomination as the country's next secretary of Health and Human Services. In it, he says that "if 30 years of exposure to the challenges inherent in our system has taught me anything, it has taught me that this work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction."

So that's what questions about ethics, probity, duty and whether a public official has ignored them all have become in our sophisticated time: just a distraction.

What a pity Mr. Daschle's 30 years of exposure to the challenges inherent in our system, not to mention inherent in being a citizen of the United States, did not teach him to report his taxes, pay them in full, and refrain from raking in the dough like a defeated majority leader of the U.S. Senate with his hand out to every special interest in sight.

At last incomplete count, the former senator had collected nearly a quarter of a million dollars in speaking fees (and he's not exactly a Winston Churchill on the platform), not counting the more than $5 million he took in as a consultant to real estate, telecommunications and energy corporations.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.